Category Archives: General Safety

Breaking Barriers for Women in Aviation—Now is the Time

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

NOW is the time to break barriers for women in aviation.

I shared this call to action with lawmakers earlier this month when I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) — a body I’m proud to have served for nearly 15 years in my pre-NTSB days.

It was the T&I Committee’s first hearing as it prepares to work on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. In the words of Chairman Sam Graves, the bill is an unmissable opportunity to enhance “America’s gold standard in aviation safety.”  

Make no mistake: the lack of diversity in U.S. aviation is a safety issue, which is why I’m so glad Congressman Rudy Yakym asked me about it.

The State of Women in Aviation

I’m only the fourth woman to serve as NTSB Chair since the agency was established in 1967 — 55 years ago.

Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique; women are underrepresented across transportation in every mode and nearly every job category, especially in roles that tend to pay more, such as upper management and highly technical positions.

Aviation is no exception, where the data are startling: women hold less than 8% of FAA-issued pilot certificates.

Things are improving, but not fast enough. In fact, the share of commercial pilot certificates held by women is increasing at a rate of approximately 1% a DECADE. That’s unacceptably slow progress.

There’s also an unacceptable lack of ethnic and racial diversity among U.S. pilots, 94% of whom are white…and less than 0.5% of whom are Black women.

Other roles in aviation show a similar trend when it comes to gender diversity. Women represent 19.7% of dispatchers, 16.8% of air traffic controllers, 3% of aviation CEOs, and less than 3% of maintenance technicians. I could go on.

The System-Level Change We Need

What’s keeping women out of the control towers, off the tarmac, and everywhere in between — and what can we do about it?

The Women in Aviation Advisory Board (WIAAB) set out to answer these questions. Convened by Congress, the board’s charge was to develop recommendations and strategies to support female students and aviators to pursue a career in aviation.

The board concluded its work last year with a groundbreaking report, whose findings are best understood with an example.

Let’s use a hypothetical young woman who dreams of flying when she grows up. 

I’ll call her “Lexi.”

Barriers to Entry

Lexi will face significant barriers to entering aviation at all stages of her life — and they present sooner than you might think.

As one survey revealed, more than half (54%) of women in aviation cited childhood exposure to the field as a positive influence on their decision to pursue an aviation career.

Conversely, 70% of women outside the industry say they never considered aviation. The most common reason they cited? A lack of familiarity with aviation-related opportunities.

In other words, exposing young kids to aviation is a powerful step we can take toward our diversity goals.

That means Lexi is more likely to become a pilot if someone exposes her to it before she’s 10 years old.  

As Lexi grows up, society will send her powerful messages about who “belongs” in aviation. The WIAAB report points out, “During the secondary school years (ages 11–18), girls continue to be subjected to gender-limiting stereotypes and face bias and harassment for behaving outside of societal norms.”

Without intervention, repeated exposure to such negative messages can end Lexi’s aviation career before it even begins.

Barriers to Retention

Getting more women to enter aviation is only half the battle; we need to ensure they stay once they get there. Let’s assume Lexi is one of them.

Lexi is now a young adult. She’s completed her studies, graduated at the top of her class, and earned her pilot’s certificate. She’s thrilled to accept an offer to work as a commercial pilot.

At her new job, Lexi quickly makes a group of friends: 9 other women in aviation who defied the odds to be there. They “made it.”

The heartbreaking truth is that 6 of those 10 women will consider leaving aviation before long. Chances are, it’ll include Lexi.

What could possibly force Lexi and five of her colleagues from a job they’ve each dreamed about since childhood…one they worked incredibly hard to get?

In short: implicit bias discrimination, lack of career opportunities, and lack of flexibility and work-life balance. That’s what the WIAAB report shows.

The report also reveals chilling statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment. Among women in aviation:

  • 71% report experiencing sexual harassment at work or in an aviation setting.
  • 68% of flight attendants experienced sexual harassment during their flying career.
  • 51% who reported or complained about sexual harassment experienced retaliation.
  • 62% say sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the aviation industry.
  • 81% say they’ve witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace.

It’s not right and it’s not safe — for anyone.

The Safety Implications

Keep these statics in mind. Now, consider this line from NASA’s Safety Culture Model, which was developed following the 1986 Challenger disaster: “No one should ever be afraid to speak up; it could save a life.”

How could a woman like Lexi feel safe speaking up if she’s being harassed at work? And retaliated against for reporting it?

It’s clear that our aviation safety culture is falling short on NASA’s measure.

The Royal Aeronautical Society makes the case succinctly: “Without an inclusive environment, there can be no guarantee of safety.”

Fortunately, the opposite is also true: an inclusive culture can make everyone safer.

That’s why the WIABB recommends interventions like creating an industry-wide reporting system on gender bias. Imagine for just a moment what that could do to attract women to careers in aviation and ensure they stay. It’d be game-changing.

Now imagine ALL 55 of the WIAAB recommendations are implemented — it would transform aviation.

THAT’s how we create a more inclusive aviation culture, one that attracts and retains people from all walks of life…one that makes our skies safer for everyone.

We also need to give credit where it’s due. Many in the aviation industry are taking proactive steps that are also having a tremendous positive effect. For example, several commercial airlines have launched pilot training academies to diversify their applicant pool, efforts that I applaud!

The next step, as I see it, would be for the entire industry and labor to combine efforts. Such an action could supercharge progress toward our diversity goals. It would also allow industry and labor to defray the costs associated with investing in tomorrow’s aviation workforce…an investment from which we all benefit.

A Personal Take

I want a different future for women in aviation. Women like Lexi…whose aviation career, I’ll now admit, isn’t hypothetical.

Lexi is my daughter.

Lexi speaking at the 2022 Women in Aviation International Conference

Though she’s now 15 years old, Lexi has known for years that she wants to be an aerospace engineer when she grows up. She even spoke about her passion for flying at last year’s Women in Aviation International Conference. I’m incredibly proud of her.

I have no doubt that my daughter will make her aviation dreams come true. And yet, I worry about the culture she’ll encounter once she gets there, and not just because I’m her mom — but because a more inclusive aviation culture will make everyone safer. I also think about the other little girls who never know that aviation is a viable dream in the first place.

Luckily, the Women in Aviation Advisory Board has provided us with a “flight plan for the future,” which gets at the root causes of our diversity problem.

Let’s get to work. Our “gold standard” of aviation safety depends on it.

Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Honoring Families, Every Day

By Elias Kontanis, Chief, Transportation Disaster Assistance Division

Last year, for the first time, the international aviation community observed February 20th as the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. This year, on the second annual observance, we join in reflecting on the lives lost in aviation accidents as well as on the vigilance needed to ensure safety remains the priority in aviation.

As important as it is to commemorate, it is imperative that we also commit—commit to ensuring our programs effectively address the concerns of accident survivors and families and provide the information and support needed after tragedy happens.

The NTSB conducts its investigations with the goal of preventing future accidents. We do this work so that no other families must experience the painful loss or injury of loved ones due to transportation accidents. Our objective is, first and foremost, accident prevention. We maintain a steadfast commitment to this because we believe that the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries in all modes of transportation is zero.

With our commitment to transportation safety, we also have a commitment to support families by offering information about the NTSB’s investigative process, addressing their questions about the specific accident investigation involving their loved ones, and offering information about other services that may be available. The NTSB’s family assistance team does this every day, not only for aviation accidents but for all transportation accidents involving fatalities investigated by the NTSB. In 2022, our seven-member team provided support for 868 investigations, interacting with 3,480 accident survivors and family members.

The NTSB’s commitment to supporting transportation accident survivors and their family members is long-standing, spanning over 25 years. In that time, we have established some basic yet enduring principles:

  • An independent and transparent safety investigation, with a focus on enhancing safety and not assigning blame or liability, is essential to the success of family assistance. Transparency and honesty fosters confidence.
  • Rapport and credibility must be established with family members by communicating realistic expectations about the investigation and other aspects of the response. This includes clearly and appropriately communicating limits to the information and services available.
  • A well-designed family assistance plan should be flexible and scalable. Rigid constructs break when they encounter an unanticipated force, but when the plan is flexible, it will bend and spring back to its original form when a stressor is applied.
  • The entity responsible for coordinating the response should use a unified command concept of operations, enabling organizations to work together without giving up authority, responsibility, or accountability.
  • A comprehensive response requires collaboration from multiple government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Participating entities should focus on the fundamental concerns of families within the boundaries of their mandate and capabilities.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has spearheaded several initiatives to promote these principles among contracting states (that is, countries) by developing a 3-day course designed to provide governments, aircraft and airport operators, and other stakeholders the foundational knowledge to develop family assistance plans. Most recently, the European Civil Aviation Conference and the ICAO European and North Atlantic Regional Office have also jointly organized a workshop on assistance to aircraft accident victims and their families, which is scheduled for February 20, 2023, in Milan, Italy. This workshop will bring together representatives from several countries, family associations, and other stakeholders to share best practices.

Family assistance needs to be an organizational priority, ingrained in the culture and mindset of an entity engaging in this work. More than regulations, policies, standard operating procedures, or checklists, family assistance is about listening to and learning from those affected by disaster. Ultimately, family assistance is about caring for our fellow human beings and treating them with dignity and compassion, the same way we would expect to be treated when faced with an unexpected injury or loss of a loved one.

We stand with our international colleagues in honor of this solemn day, commemorating the lives lost and the families who faced such unimaginable tragedy, and we will not forget our commitments to them in the work we do.

40 Years Later, The Marine Electric Sinking Remembered

By James Scheffer, Strategic Advisor, NTSB Office of Marine Safety

It’s been 40 years since the large bulk carrier SS Marine Electric tragically sank on February 12, 1983, off the Virginia coast. Nearly all aboard—31 of 34 souls—were lost. But I remember the events of that tragic day as if they happened yesterday.

On that day, I was the 34-year-old captain of the 661-foot, 34,700-DWT lube oil tanker Tropic Sun, the first vessel to respond to the Marine Electric’s early morning distress call.

On February 11, a nor’easter formed off Cape Hatteras and the Virginia coast. On land, the storm was responsible for a blizzard that set snowfall records in several eastern seaboard cities and blanketed Washington, D.C., in up to 30 inches of snow. At sea, it generated 50–60 knot winds and 30–40-foot seas.

On the evening of February 11, while on the bridge, I heard the Ocean City Coast Guard Station side of a VHF radio telephone call to the Marine Electric. The Coast Guard was acknowledging that the Marine Electric had pumps going and was telling the crew to keep the Coast Guard informed if they needed help.

Meanwhile, the Tropic Sun was rolling, the bow slamming into the swells and seas shipping across the main deck—not unusual conditions for a loaded tanker during a nor’easter. Again and again, water covered the deck; again and again, the deck emerged after each wave. We took that for granted. It was normal in a storm.

I tried—but failed—to get some sleep. The Tropic Sun was three hours from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and another from our discharge terminal at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.

At 0315, the radio telegraph auto alarm went off on the bridge. The SOS was from the Marine Electric, which was taking on water and readying its lifeboats for abandoning ship. The crew needed help as soon as possible.

The Marine Electric was more than 35 miles from us. I changed course and informed the local Coast Guard station that we were responding to the SOS. On our way south to render aid, we saw an unwelcome sight, one that still makes me shake my head: vessels that must have heard the Marine Electric’s SOS sailing in the opposite direction.

When we got within a dozen miles of the Marine Electric’s last position, our hearts sank. There was no sign of the bulk carrier on radar. Before daybreak the sea was full of blinking strobe lights, which we recognized as the lights on lifejackets.

I maneuvered the ship in heavy seas to a full stop alongside more than 20 possible survivors floating in the water around 0540. At the time, the water temperature was 39F with an air temp of 34F. They were unresponsive to our calls in the dark/early morning and eerily peaceful, all dressed in winter gear and lifejackets. By all appearances, the Marine Electric‘s open lifeboats had failed to keep them out of the water and alive.

My own vessel carried the same style of open lifeboat.

The Coast Guard requested that I launch our lifeboats to retrieve the potential survivors, but I refused because of the strong winds and heavy sea conditions. The chief mate and I would not put our crew in harm’s way in the same type of open lifeboats that had so abjectly failed the crew of the Marine Electric. At the request of the Coast Guard, I agreed to stay in the area following a search pattern for any missing crewmembers. The Coast Guard thanked us for our efforts, and we resumed our voyage at dusk on February 12.

Later, while discharging cargo at Marcus Hook, some of the Tropic Sun’s crewmembers discussed buying their own survival suits, but then thought of another solution, which I gladly forwarded to management: a request for survival suits for all onboard. Within two trips (28 days), the vessel was outfitted with survival suits, the first ship to be so outfitted in our eight-ship ocean fleet. These suits, also known as immersion suits, are used without a life jacket when abandoning ship in cold conditions. 

On July 18, while the investigation of the sinking was in progress, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require immersion suits be provided for crewmembers, scientific personnel, and industrial workers on vessels that operate in waters below 60°F. The NTSB also made a companion recommendation to Marine Transport Lines, which operated the Marine Electric, as well as to industry groups to recommend their members also provide the suits. The suits became mandatory the following year.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the US bulk carrier Marine Electric was the flooding of several forward compartments as the result of an undetermined structural failure. The lack of thermal protection [survival suits] in the water was one of the factors contributing to the loss of life in the tragedy.

As a result of the Marine Electric’s sinking, the Coast Guard’s inspections improved, and many World War II-era (and older) vessels were scrapped. The Marine Electric tragedy also resulted in the creation of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program.

The Marine Electric as seen underway before its capsizing and sinking on Feb. 12, 1983 (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

I sailed for over 24 years with the Sun Marine Department, mostly on coastwise voyages on the east and west coast, with the occasional foreign voyage. I sailed as a captain for over 16 years without any casualties or pollution events. The night the Marine Electric was lost served as a constant reminder to me to respect the power of the sea.

Over the past 26-plus years, I have investigated dozens of accidents and supervised more than 200 accident investigations as Chief of Investigations and Chief of Product Development in the Office of Marine Safety at the NTSB. And since then, we have seen the emergence of technologies and innovations that, combined with survival suits, could have helped prevent such tragedies, such as personal locator beacons.

However, I will never forget the night the Marine Electric sank, and neither will the other members of the Tropic Sun’s crew. While events in our lives have sent each of us forward on our separate courses, whenever we meet, our conversations converge on that evening 40 years ago.

This anniversary has passed, but the memory of those 31 mariners will not.

Those of us aboard the Tropic Sun fared far better that night; however, our similarities to the crew that was lost drove home two points about losses at sea. First, if we are telling the story, we are the fortunate ones. And second, nothing is more important than taking fortune out of the equation by making life at sea safer.

Prioritizing Safety This Holiday Travel Season

By Stephanie Shaw, Acting Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

This week, families and friends will gather to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. According to estimates from AAA, nearly 55 million people will travel away from home this year, with about 49 million of them taking to the roads.

As we mark the beginning of the holiday travel season, we want to ensure that everyone arrives safely at their destinations. Unfortunately, travel on our roads can be the riskiest mode of travel during the holiday season.

NTSB investigations continue to highlight actions needed by regulators, legislators, and industry to ensure the safest transportation system for the traveling public. Our Most Wanted List (MWL) identifies specific transportation safety improvements needed across all modes. It includes five road safety improvements that address pervasive problems like speeding, alcohol and other drug impairment, and distraction. The MWL also calls for collision-avoidance and connected vehicle technologies and implementation of a Safe System Approach to better protect all road users.

At the NTSB, we believe that safety is a shared responsibility, so for the traveling public, we’ve highlighted some ways you can keep yourself and others safe, regardless of the travel mode you choose.

By Car

Impairment by alcohol and other drugs, unsafe speeds, fatigue, and distraction continue to play major roles in crashes. Here’s what you can do:

  • Designate a sober driver, or call a taxi, or ridesharing service if your holiday celebrations involve alcohol or other impairing drugs.
  • Follow safe speeds. In bad weather, safe speeds are often below the designated speed limit. Speeding increases the chance of being involved in a crash and intensifies the severity of crash injuries.
  • Make sure you’re well rested! A fatigued driver is just as dangerous as one impaired by alcohol or other drugs.
  • Avoid distractions. Don’t take or make calls or text while driving, even using a hands-free device. Set your navigation system before you start driving. If you’re traveling with others, ask them to navigate.
  • Make sure to use the correct safety restraint for child passengers, and be sure it’s installed correctly.
  • Ensure you and all your passengers are buckled up! In a crash, seat belts (and proper child restraints) are your best protection against death and serious injuries.

By Bus

The NTSB has made recommendations to improve motorcoach operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should know what to do in an emergency.

  • Pay attention to safety briefings and know where the nearest emergency exit is. If it’s a window or roof hatch, make sure you know how to use it.
  • Ask your driver to give you a safety briefing if you’re unsure of where the exits are or how to use them.
  • Use your seat belt when they’re available!

By Plane or Boat

These tips can help you and your loved ones in an emergency on planes or vessels.

  • Pay close attention to the safety briefing! Airline and marine accidents have become very rare, but you and your family can be safer by being prepared.
  • Know where to find the nearest emergency exit and flotation device whether you’re on an airplane or a boat.
  • Confirm that you and your traveling companions—even children under age 2—have your own seats and are buckled up when flying.
  • Don’t forget your child’s car seat. The label will usually tell you if your child car seat is certified for airplane use; the owner’s manual always has this information.
  • Call the airline and ask what the rules are for using a child’s car seat on your flight, if you don’t already know.
  • Follow crewmember instructions and remain calm in an emergency.

By Train

The NTSB has made recommendations to improve passenger rail operations and vehicle crashworthiness, but travelers should also follow these safety tips.

  • Stow carry-ons in the locations provided (overhead and racks). Don’t block aisles.
  • Review your trains safety information which may be provided as a safety card in your seat pocket or displayed in your railcar.
  • Follow crewmember instructions and remain calm in an emergency.

No matter how you travel, make a commitment to put safety first.

We wish everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Honor Traffic Victims with Action

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

50 million deaths. Hundreds of millions of injuries.

That’s the worldwide cost of traffic violence, in human terms. It’s difficult to comprehend fully, which is why the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is so meaningful.

This annual observance provides a time to reflect on the real people behind the statistics: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, colleagues, best friends, and neighbors.

It’s a time to support those who’ve lost a loved one to the public health crisis on our roads.

And it’s a time to act, starting with NTSB recommendations.

Lessons from Tragedy

Since last year’s World Day of Remembrance, the NTSB has made 26 new recommendations to improve road safety. All remain open.

Where did these recommendations come from? They are the result of rigorous NTSB investigations into devastating crashes, outlined below. Each one is a lesson from tragedy, which is why we don’t rest until a recommendation is implemented.

At the NTSB, we believe the most meaningful thing we can do for victims of traffic violence is to advocate for our safety recommendations.

In other words: we choose to honor the victims with action.

Here are just some of the victims we’re remembering today — along with the recommended safety improvements to best honor their memory. 

Today we remember two people who were killed and seven who were injured in a Belton, SC, crash between an SUV and a bus carrying disabled passengers. The actions we demand on their behalf include the following:

  • Ban nonemergency use of portable electronic devices, like cellphones, for all drivers.  
  • Recruit cellphone manufacturers in the fight against distracted driving; they should automatically disable distracting functions when a vehicle is in motion.
  • Provide annual safety training for people employed to transport wheelchair users.  
  • Develop a side-impact protection standard for new, medium-size buses, regardless of weight — and require compliance.

We should honor the victims of the Pennsylvania Turnpike crash that injured 50 people and killed five others — including a nine-year-old child — by taking the following actions:

  • Develop performance standards for advanced speed-limiting technology, connected-vehicle technology, and collision-avoidance systems — and require their use on new vehicles, as appropriate.
  • Require newly manufactured heavy vehicles to have onboard video event recorders.
  • Deploy connected-vehicle technology nationwide.
  • Take a comprehensive approach to eliminate speeding. Among other measures, this means thinking long and hard about the 85th percentile approach and using speed safety cameras, which includes working to remove restrictions against them. 

Here’s what we must do to honor the three people who were killed and the 18 who were injured when a bus overturned in Pala Mesa, California:

  • Require all new buses to meet a roof strength standard.
  • Sponsor research into safe tire tread depths for commercial vehicles.
  • Require seat belt use.

The best way to remember the victims of the Decatur, Tennessee, school bus crash that injured 14 people and killed two people, including a 7-year-old child, is to take the following steps:

  • Make lap-shoulder belts mandatory in new school buses.
  • Require lane-departure prevention systems on heavy vehicles.

And what about the nine people who died in a head-on crash in Avenal, California, on New Year’s Day — seven of whom were children? We must implement the following NTSB recommendations in their memory:

  • Require alcohol-detection systems in all new vehicles to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.
  • Encourage vehicle manufacturers to combat alcohol-impaired driving by accelerating progress on advanced impaired driving prevention technology and finding new ways to use existing technology, like driver monitoring systems.
  • Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems. One way to achieve this is to include ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Notably, ISA became mandatory in July 2022 for all new models of vehicles introduced in the European Union.
  • Develop a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing by state officials.

Remember. Support. Act.

Even as we advocate for our safety recommendations, more crashes are occurring daily — which means more investigations. The work continues.

And yet, we cannot let the magnitude of the road safety crisis deter us.

We must keep fighting for zero, which is only possible through a Safe System Approach

We must fight for road users around the world who deserve to be safe.

We must fight for those whose lives are forever changed by traffic violence.

We must fight for those who are no longer here to fight for themselves.

For all these people and more, the NTSB will keep fighting. And so will I.